The Cuffs


Following on a lesson about time phrases such as at first, then, finally, and in the end, I asked the three students in my pre-intermediate adult class to talk about a time something interesting happened to them. The same invitation given to my class of fifth graders would have resulted in a commotion as all six children vied to tell their story first. Not so with these adults, who hardly reacted at all. They showed neither eagerness nor interest, thoughtfulness nor puzzlement. If anything, they looked resigned. But not, apparently, to telling a story but to not telling one: none of them even made a show of searching their memory. “Oh, come on,” I chided. “Something must have happened, sometime.”

And yet, I could think of no example of my own to share. Not that things hadn’t happened, just nothing that lent itself to a telling at this time and place. As I continued mentally clicking through anecdotes from my life, one of the students said he had a story.

“Good!” I exclaimed.

“How do you say esposas?” he asked.

“Esposas? Wives?” I inquired, but he shook his head no. Then he wrapped the fingers of one hand around his other wrist. Ah! That’s handcuffs, I told him. I was pleased that this reticent student had a story, and I was also pleased to provide the word handcuffs to a student, a first. Plus, I was intrigued, and I listened with interest to how he had found his dad’s handcuffs one day when he was six years old and snapped them on his wrists, as tight as he could.

“Your dad had cuffs lying around the house?”

His dad was a police officer, he said, then went on. He couldn’t get the handcuffs off because he couldn’t find the key. No one could. So his dad rushed him out to locate a friend who had similar cuffs in the hope his key would fit. It didn’t. But the father and friend were able to file the friend’s key so that it worked well enough to spring the mechanism and free the boy.

The friend just happened to have handcuffs, too? I asked.

The student showed no impatience at having to explain that this friend was a friend from work who had cuffs for the same reason his father did. Oh, of course, I said, a friend from work. A colleague, I added.

My job is to correct the students’ errors and suggest an appropriate word when the students are stuck. Some errors I let pass, however, along with some opportunities for providing new vocabulary. This is especially true if students are telling a story, when an interruption might distract them from their tale. Occasionally, though, at a loss for how to react to something a student says, I might fall back on correction without even considering if the moment is opportune. I wonder if that’s why I supplied the word colleague—because I was momentarily thrown by the image that rose in my mind of a child finding among his father’s belongings not the handcuffs but a gun. Stories like that make the headlines in the States: three-year-old releasing the safety on a gun, five-year-old figuring out how to load a revolver, six-year-old imitating William Tell to deadly effect. Such headlines are a lot less likely in Spain, where gun ownership is carefully regulated.

When the student finished, I asked him a couple of questions, partly to encourage the other students to do the same, since conversational English is the goal, and partly out of my lingering unease at having had no story of my own. All the while I was wondering why wives and handcuffs are the same word in Spanish. Surely that was sexist? My wife, my handcuffs?

But maybe the language was no more obviously sexist than were the case reversed and the word for handcuffs was instead husbands, esposos. I remember once, years ago, when I was hurt because my boyfriend called to say he’d drop by since he was in the area. Oh—only because you’re in the neighborhood, was my unspoken complaint. But had he not taken advantage of the opportunity to see me, I’d have been equally hurt: not even when you’re in the neighborhood! Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. I thought that someone objecting to wives and handcuffs being the same word might object just as strenuously to husbands and handcuffs. Maybe the root of the problem was elsewhere. I considered asking my students their thoughts on the subject.

But it didn’t seem to me that evening, facing the three students, all male, that they would be much interested in the topic. They might acknowledge the sexism, but with a shrug. And were I to suggest their response was cavalier, they could point out that if laws for gun control won’t take hold in the United States, then why would I think norms to control sexism would work here? Sexism can’t be worse than deadly violence. Better those cuffs, by any name, falling into a child’s hands than a gun. Don’t we agree?

I’m not so sure everyone would. Someone with the sexism bugbear finds the choking effect of wrong language everywhere, just as someone with the gun-control obsession does. The same goes for any other agenda. Twist the arguments, find counter examples, demonstrate contradictions, and people remain faithful to their beliefs.

It was almost eight o’clock. I wanted class to be over, and so did my students. My earlier discomfort at not having an example of my own at the ready had dissipated. It was time to wrap class up. No clever final comment occurred to me. I shrugged. In the end, any ending will do, sometimes.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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